Is China Walking a Tightrope Between Russia & Ukraine While Balancing Diplomacy?

The fact that China had to assure Russia of its neutrality hints at an unease in Moscow about the Chinese position.

6 min read

China, a close partner and strategic ally of Russia has refused to condemn Russia’s “special military operations” in Ukraine since they began some 18 months ago. It has even blamed the West for fuelling the conflict, and on at least four occasions, refused to vote for any anti-Russia resolution in the UN Security Council.

But a host of factors may now be necessitating a rethink on China’s part, as a sequence of recent events demonstrates.


China’s Partnership With Georgia Raises Eyebrows

On 31 July, China upgraded its relations with Georgia to a strategic partnership, during the visit of Georgian Prime Ministry Irakli Garibashvili to China. Georgia, a former Soviet republic, nestled in the South Caucasus and situated on the Black Sea, forms a crucial link in connectivity projects linking Eurasia with Europe.

As such, it is key to China’s Belt and Road Initiative too, with the Chinese having invested USD 108.5 million in 2022 there. These investments and infrastructural projects now need to be accelerated because of the Ukraine crisis.

Ensuing sanctions on Russia and Russian entities have forced China to slow down all BRI-related investments in Russia while seeking alternate routes bypassing the Russian territory.

Of course, Russia cannot be happy about this partnership, considering that Georgia was the first state in the post-Soviet space that Russia used military force against in 2008, facilitating the emergence of two “sovereign” entities – Abkhazia and South Ossetia.


China's Diplomatic Outreach

Since then both have remained deeply hostile to each other, with Georgia reaching out to the West and NATO. While the US and France did help broker the ceasefire with Russia, it is also dangling the carrot of Georgia’s membership of the EU and NATO.

Given Russia’s dependence on China since its military operations against Ukraine began, apart from the initial support that the Kremlin received from Beijing, the latter is one of the major buyers of Russian energy exports and is reported to have supplied it with satellite images and strategic components - there is little that Russia can do about the Sino-Georgian partnership, except to hope that it can help wean Georgia away from the pro-Western camp, hostile to Russia.

But for China it is another diplomatic success, another major foray into the post-Soviet space, a successful wooing of an entity that had tried hard to be a part of the Western camp, adding to the list of nations that Beijing is looking to position itself as an alternative to the US-led global order.

But it is an indication that Russia’s strained relations with anyone will not deter Beijing from entering into any strategic partnership with it.

China’s Presence at Ukraine Peace Talks

The second event is the "peace talks” that Saudi Arabia convened in Jeddah on Ukraine, where 40 countries, including Ukraine were invited to participate, but not Russia.

This provoked the spokesperson of the Russian Foreign Ministry to remark that "By promoting Zelensky’s ‘formula,’ the Kiev regime and the West are trying to downplay the great importance of initiatives put forward by other countries and monopolise the right to present them.”

The surprise at the Jeddah event was the “active” participation of China, noted commentators.

Why was this a surprise? Because China had at the beginning of this year put forth its 12-point peace formula which critics say was not a peace deal, as it put no pressure on Russia, but merely put forth China’s position on the war. Western countries had rejected it and in turn, Beijing had refrained from attending any Western initiative for resolution of the Ukraine crisis.

Of course, China balanced its participation in the Jeddah talks by following it up with a phone call between the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, assuring the latter that China remains impartial on the Ukraine crisis.

“On the Ukraine crisis, China will uphold an independent position, sound an objective and rational voice, actively promote peace talks, and strive to seek a political solution on any international multilateral occasion.”


Why Is Moscow Uneasy With Beijing

The fact that China felt the need to assure Russia of its neutrality hints at an unease in Moscow about the Chinese position.

It has not been a secret that as the Ukraine war dragged on instead of being a sharp, short operation where Russia could achieve its objectives in Ukraine and wrap up the military operations, China has quietly been changing tact.

From supporting and evincing an understanding of Russia’s "special ops”, it now professes to be "neutral” on the conflict, calling for respect for the territorial sovereignty of nations. While its proposal for Ukraine may remain anti-Western it is not pro-Russia either.

It has specifically spoken up against Russia’s threats to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine. It has also been calling for a resumption of the Black Sea Grain deal that was abruptly suspended by Russia, being a substantial buyer of Ukrainian grains, and has complied with Western sanctions, given its dependence on the US and EU both economically and technologically coupled with the threat of secondary sanctions, to fuel its growth and development.


The economic aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, together with China’s policies of over-lending have negatively impacted the Chinese economy and slowed down much of its BRI projects.

All of this points to the distance travelled by Beijing from the time that together with Russian President Vladimir Putin President Xi Jinping professed that their friendship "….has no limits, there are no "forbidden“ areas of cooperation, strengthening of bilateral strategic cooperation is neither aimed against third countries nor affected by the changing international environment and circumstantial changes in third countries.”

Which brings us to the third incident. In a rare rebuke in early August, the Chinese embassy in Moscow used particularly harsh language for Russian authorities who refused to allow five Chinese nationals to enter Russia after detaining them for four hours.

“Russia’s brutal and excessive law enforcement in this incident have seriously violated the legitimate rights and interests of the Chinese citizens,” the embassy said in a post on WeChat, the popular Chinese social media platform.

This is unusually harsh language for any diplomatic representative office, leave alone for such allies. It cannot be unintentional, just as the actions of the Russian immigration officials could not have been either.

Deepening Fault Lines

In spite of their close relations, there are some deep-rooted issues between the two sides. One of these is Chinese migration to Russia, especially in Russia’s Far East. Still, to refuse entry to a group of five with tourist visas, after sufficient harassment, particularly at a time like this, points to some other intent. What could Moscow be signaling by this?

Of course on the face of it, Russia and China continue to be strategic allies as they profess to be. The incident occurred before the Jeddah talks, following which Wang Yi had a phone call with his Russian counterpart.

Currently, the Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu is in Russia at the invitation of his Russian counterpart to attend the Moscow International Security Conference. Yet, the above events all point to the fact that China is hedging itself from the negative consequences that the protracted Ukraine conflict can inflict on it.

Analysts have warned that hedging its bets would not translate into Beijing completely throwing Russia under the bus, and letting go of its closest ally and strategic partner. Nevertheless, if the conflict continues to drag on for much longer – and there is an indication that it will – it may further complicate matters for Beijing.

Closer home, India and China held the 19th round of India-China corps commander level meeting at the Chushul-Moldo border meeting point on the Indian side on 13-14 August as part of ongoing efforts to resolve the standoff at eastern Ladakh.

While both sides have undertaken disengagement from five friction points, talks have been stalled over disengagement from Depsang Plains and Demchok.

China’s flagship CPEC has suffered serious setbacks in Pakistan as recent attacks against Chinese nationals in Balochistan demonstrate. On the other hand, India currently enjoys better relations with the West than China does. Can the Ukraine crisis affect some realist thinking among the Chinese vis-à-vis India?

(Aditi Bhaduri is a journalist and political analyst. She tweets @aditijan. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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